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The Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) Contract Rejection Saga will take a sharp turn towards resolution by 5 p.m. ET, as the NHLPA decides whether to take the NHL to arbitration over its decision to spike the 17-year, $102 million deal.

According to Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, the Players' Association has been researching the case with the intention of taking on the NHL:

All indications are that the NHLPA will file the grievance before Monday's deadline after its lawyers conducted a thorough study of the facts, including interviewing all the parties involved in the contract negotiations. The delay the last two days was likely due to the union waiting through the weekend before officially filing the paperwork.

After the grievance is filed, the NHL and the NHLPA must hire a "system" arbitrator to rule on the case.  Both sides must agree on the arbitrator. I was among those who speculated that the process could take weeks, but the NHLPA will want to expedite the search so that Kovalchuk will not be in limbo too much longer as far as where he will play in 2010-11. So, if the NHL drags its feet, it will be quite obvious.

As Gulitti points out, the arbitrator has 48 hours from the time they are hired to rule on the case. If the NHL wins, there's still no guarantee Kovalchuk won't just restructure his deal and remain with the New Jersey Devils. Or, he could sign elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent, rendering the Devils' laudatory press conference as the most self-inflicted moment of unintentional hockey hilarity since Patrik Stefan's botched empty netter.

As Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger notes, there isn't currently an arbitrator in place, so the process to find one could push this thing deeper into the summer. This seriously messes with the Devils in a few ways, including personnel decisions under the cap and any attempt to properly market their shiny new toy for next season.

Once again, it's baby steps towards a resolution today. Every source I've spoken to expects the NHL to take a whuppin' in arbitration. But one sports law pundit breaks down the cases for the NHL and the NHLPA, and thinks it might be a tough case for the Devils to win.

Eric Macramalla is a Partner at Gowlings, a leading Canadian law firm, and has a blog called Offside: A Sports Law Blog.  He's been doing some interesting work on the Kovalchuk case, including the hypothesis that the Devils would rather restructure and re-file while Kovalchuk and the NHLPA want to fight this out in arbitration.

Macramalla also had a post about why this is a business decision for Lou Lamoriello and great breakdown of the arguments for the NHL and the NHLPA if this thing goes to arbitration.

The arguments for the NHLPA are pretty clear; for the NHL, the arguments are:

One Reason and One Reason Only: The deal constitutes a cap circumvention as it artificially lowers the yearly cap hit with, at the very least, 6 throwaway years. The only reason the contract was designed in this way was to circumvent the CBA; there is no other reason.

Unique Contract: While there have been some long contracts signed, none are of this magnitude at 17 years and none are structured with so many inconsequential years at the end for so little money.

Career Arc: Looking at the typical arc of a player's career (particularly a forward/winger), it is unlikely that Kovalchuk would play into his 40s. While, there are some players that have played into their 40s (Marc Recchi at 42 and Chris Chelios(notes) at 48), empirically that is not the norm.

According to Macramalla, "You can say past practice should be an endorsement of this contract; however, that alone is likely insufficient to sustain the position that the contract should be deemed valid."

Perhaps that's true; but it sure will be interesting to hear how the NHL rationalizes allowing cap circumvention in some cases but not in others. Just as interesting as hearing the NHL argue for term limits on contracts when the CBA doesn't establish any.

Here's another NHL vs. Kovalchuk case take from The Hockey Writers. 

In the end, the only thing the warring factions are likely to agree upon is this suggestion from 640AM's Greg Brady:

To commemorate NHLPA's Kovalchuk grievance, all syndicated channels running "Seinfeld" must air Festivus episode/Airing Of Grievances...

If this leads to a Gary Bettman vs. Lou Lamoriello Feats of Strength, count us in.

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